Trinity Students Tackle Invasive Johnson grass on Llano River

There was a fine lady from Lampasas
Who waged battle with invasive grasses
When a root so immense
of that Sorghum halepense
Knocked her and her friends on their Johnson grasses.

                          –Chris Best, Texas State Botanist
                             U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

monarchsonfrostweed

Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the Llano River, we’ve always enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frostweed in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white fall bloomers, respectively, serve as important nectar and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures.

Until recently.

In the last two years, we’ve noticed our uninterrupted stands of fall nectar plants persistently punctuated by invasive Johnson grass. A recent road project that busted the crust on our river frontage opened the gate for germination, and the record rains and floods have put our nectar rest stop for pollinators at risk. Where once stood a solid stand of fall blooms for migrating Monarch butterflies, local Swallowtails and native bees, now presides an uninvited patch of Johnson grass.

The pesky invasive, Sorghum halepense, first arrived in the U.S. from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop.   We all know how that turned out.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now, Johnson grass is one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world, according to the educational website Texasinvasives.org, a public-private partnership of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry businesses, academia and others organized to protect Texas from the threat of invasive species.  Johnson grass is super aggressive, spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

Johnson grass has nasty rhizomes
Creeping through the clastic loams
The bunches measure three feet wide
And their leaves are stuffed with cyanide.

                                            –Chris Best

When stressed by drought, frost or herbicides, Johnson grass can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock–not a trait you typically seek in a grass meant for cattle grazing.  The seeds are also especially well protected by their casings and can survive the digestive tracts of birds and others that might eat them.

Oh, and Johnson grass likes moist conditions.  Like riversides.  After floods.   Are you getting the picture here?

austinjohnsoneeggrass

Trinity biology student Austin Phillipe lets us know what he thinks of Johnson grass on the Llano. That’s Johnson grass on the left. Eastern gamagrass on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trinity University students to the rescue.   Last week, five students accompanied their biology professor, Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and expert in invasive plants, to the Texas Butterfly Ranch to assist in a Johnson grass eradication project as part of Trinity University’s summer research program funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation.

The project began in April when a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity.   Four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and will be treated with different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhacking, herbicides, and fire in various combinations.

Last week, students Ann Adams, Cassandra Alvarado, Avva Bassiri-Gharb, Kendall Kotara and Austin Phillipe returned to check the effect floods had on the site and begin control treatments.  The messy job of reestablishing the plots started Thursday, as super-sized mosquitoes dogged the students.  “Wear a hazmat suit,” quipped Avva Bassiri-Gharb. Said Phillipe:  “A bad day in the field beats a good one in the lab. But we had a great day in the field so you can’t beat that!”

More data collection and Johnson grass removal continued Friday in the aftermath of yet another inch-plus of rain and two overnight tornado warnings.  Grubbing and herbicide applications followed, with herbicide applied via makeshift wand–actually barbecue tongs wrapped in towels–that kept the product from escaping to desirable plants.

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Later this year we’ll test fire as a control method, and plant Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, as a native replacement.   The project will continue into 2016.

Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, is well suited to the Llano River’s unpredictable moods of famine and flooding.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

Eastern gamagrass also competes well with overzealous Johnson grass and uses niche space in a similar way, said Dr. Lyons. “We hypothesize that it will hold its own when Johnson grass tries to reinvade.”

So the war is on.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass.  It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper.   It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which is a host plant to Monarch butterflies.  The tall  mounds of Eastern gamagrass provide shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun and shield it from flooding.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses.  Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson,  Bugwood.org -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost.   It’s equally important to manage and combat the deluge of invasive species that infect our wildscapes.  Johnson grass is just one interloper.    Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.

 

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Pollinator Power on the River Walk: Garden Plot Transforms to Creature Haven

In my day job at CPS Energy, the largest municipally owned electric and gas utility in the country, I look out my window onto the glorious San Antonio River Walk.

CPS ENergy pollinator posse

CPS Energy Pollinator Posse, L- R: Stephanie Ockenfels, Sam Taylor, Vincent McDonald, Pamela Maris, Gwenn Young, Monika Maeckle Photo by Gary Chavez

When I joined the company last year, a homogenous, overgrown patch of iron plant, occupied the small, triangular garden that separates my office from the San Antonio River. My view includes locals mingling with tourists and badge-wearing conventioneers shuffling along the sidewalk en route to hotels or meetings under the shade of grand Bald Cypress trees. Until recently, not many insects or pollinators joined the party.

Pollinators CPS Energy

Pollinators and other creatures have gravitated to the small plot at CPS Energy. Photo by Vincent McDonald

When I accepted the position as director of integrated communications, I joked with friends that my not-so-secret agenda would be “pollinator corridors under power lines.”  I wasn’t kidding.   We’re working on that.

In the meantime, however, I wondered:   would it be possible to transform this small corner of the River Walk into a more interesting view for me and my colleagues while offering a more inviting habitat for local critters, especially pollinators?

CPS Energy pollinator garden

BEFORE: View from my office at CPS Energy. Iron plant on the River Walk. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The area sees mostly shade, which is why landscapers planted Aspidistra elatior.  Commonly known as iron plant, or cast iron plant, this well-adapted evergreen has a reputation for its resistance to neglect.   It thrives in shade and requires little water.

Flowers need sun and pollinators need flowers.  Dappled light finds its way to this plot in the mornings and cascades from the west in the afternoon. That’s enough for certain plants to flower.  If we chose our plants carefully, we might be able to lure butterflies or hummingbirds.   Hmmm.

CPS Energy pollinator garden

AFTER: Check out the new view!   Wildlife loves it, and so do we. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In January, volunteers from our corporate communications team joined me in a small “Pollinator Power” experiment.  A half-dozen willing workers gathered late one cool winter afternoon to tackle the transformation of the 120-square foot plot into a pollinator habitat.

We used my favorite low-tech method of clearing undesirable plants:   hand pulling (thank you, CPS Energy landscape crew!) followed by solarization, an environmentally friendly method for ridding soil of pests, pathogens and undesirable plants executed by my corp comm colleagues.

Polly the Pollinator Garden cat

Sorry, kitty. No milk, but would you settle for some milkweed? “Polly” the cat visits the CPS Energy pollinator garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On January 3, we laid six-10 layers of newspaper atop the soil after the CPS Energy landscape crew hand-pulled the iron plant.   We then watered the newspaper, applied four-six inches of compost and mulch, spreading it evenly.

Then, we waited.   Solar power does the rest.  By blocking light with the newspaper and mulch mix and using the sun’s energy to kill pathogens and weed seed, we prevent the growth and spread of undesirables.

About eight weeks later, we plugged in specific shade tolerant plants by simply carving a small hole into the mulch and newspaper with a shovel.  Plant choices were dictated by their appeal to pollinators as either host plants (where they lay their eggs) or nectar plants (which they use for fuel), and an ability to thrive in dappled sun.

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These are the plants we chose and why.

Turk’s Cap Malvaviscus arboreu

Hummingbirds love this shade tolerant member of the mallow family, which blooms red.

Milkweed Asclepias curassavica, Asclepias incarnata

Host plant to Monarch and Queen butterflies. These prolific bloomers work as nectar magnets for all butterflies.

Gregg’s Purple Mist flower Conoclinium greggii

 Male Queens crave this plant’s purple bloom, which provides them special nutrients that make them attractive to the lady butterflies.

Yellow Texas Columbine Aquilegia hinckleyana

Another hummingbird favorite, the delicate leaves of this shade tolerant plant cradle interesting yellow blooms.

Texas gold lantana Lantana urticoides

Excellent all-around nectar plant.  Hearty, drought tolerant, reliable bloomer in orange or yellow.

Cowpen Daisy  Verbesina encelioides

A personal favorite.   This member of the sunflower family blooms nonstop, works overtime as a nectar source and as a host to the Bordered Patch butterfly.

Jimsonweed Datura wrighti

Host plant to the Sphinx moth, the robust grower loves the heat, shows large white flowers in the evening, and has a fantastic fragrance.  The leaves smell like chocolate–but don’t eat them.  They cause hallucinations.

 

After planting, we watered each plant thoroughly and tossed a handful of slow-release fertilizer into the soil around the plant base.

In May, as the weather warmed, we developed a volunteer watering schedule, dubbed our “Pollinator Posse.” Several corporate communications staff agreed to water with a hose three times a week.

Pollinator ducks

A pair of Mallard ducks took up residence in the pollinator garden at CPS Energy. Photo by Lori Johnson

Several staff members commented that the 10-minute watering break in the dappled shade of the pollinator garden was “the most relaxing part of the day.”

In June, we sent off for our official Xerces Society sign, designating our plot as pollinator habitat, and now here we are in August, the most brutal month of the year, and the pollinator garden is thriving.

So far, we’ve witnessed visits from Queen and Sulphur butterflies, watched a black-chinned hummingbird sip from a Turk’s cap bloom, and enjoyed a pair of mallard ducks who built a temporary shelter in the garden.   A downtown kitty-cat visits from across the street at La Villita, the old Mexican market.  She lies in the shade and watches the pollinators busy themselves on the blooms.  Imagine what kind of wildlife is visiting when we’re not looking.

We’ve also had extended visits by a juvenile Golden-crowned Heron, who has decided the insects who’ve taken up residence in the garden make for tasty

Golden crowned heron

Young Golden-crowned Heron cherry picks the best bugs for a mid-morning snack from pollinator garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

morning snacks.  This bird was quite comfortable at our plot, lingering long enough for us to snap multiple photos.

I would offer that for those of us with a window view–and for passersby and nearby urban wildlife–our pollinator power experiment has been a success.

We haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies.  Yet.   But we’re keeping our fingers crossed as the fall migration gets underway later this month.   Hopefully they’ll recharge at CPS Energy before making their way to Mexico.   You’ll read about it right here when they do.

UPDATE: In a previous version, iron plant was misidentified as hostas. Hostas and iron plant are in the same family but different genera. Thanks to reader Anna Osborn for pointing out the faulty I.D.

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Right on time: First of Season Monarchs Arrive in San Antonio

Reports of Monarch butterfly sightings in South Texas are hitting email lists, the web and social media this week, as the hearty orange-and-black butterflies begin their massive departure from Michoacán, Mexico, making their multi-generational journey north.

Mating Monarchs

Get a room! Monarch butterflies drop to the ground in a mating frenzy upon departing their roosts in Michoacán. Photo by Estela Romero via Journey North

“The massive leaving is occurring right now!” wrote Journey North correspondent Estela Romero from Morelia, Mexico, on March 13, as millions of butterflies fled their roosts. “Monarchs are clouding our town, flying by the towers of our downtown churches in a majestic performance as if dancing to music!”  Romero provides regular dispatches from the ancestral roosting sites to the educational organization that tracks the Monarch and other migrations. Read Romero’s updates here.

The butterflies leave Mexico each year right around the Equinox, which occurred  at precisely at 11:57 AM CDT in San Antonio on Thursday.   The butterflies get their cues from the sun, rouse themselves from a semi-hibernative state, and mate.   Then they start heading north, following the blooming flowers that provide fuel in the form of nectar in search milkweed–the only plant on which they will lay their eggs and be able to continue their life cycle. The “Texas Funnel”–South Texas and the Hill Country– is often the first stop for egg-laying, and thus begets the first generation of new migrating Monarchs.

I spotted my FOS (First of Season) Monarch on Friday, March 20, about 6:30 PM, along the San Antonio River Walk right near downtown.  Alex Rivard reported a Monarch in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood of the Alamo City the same day. The faded beauty observed on my evening walk was nectaring on purple Mountain Laurel flowers, the early spring trees that offer a distinct grape Kool-aid scented bloom. As I approached the butterfly, she lighted upstream.

First of Season Monarchs are arriving in San Antonio

Harlen Aschen, a regular butterfly watcher  based in Port Lavaca, Texas, shared his  FOS Monarch spotting March 19 with the DPLEX-list, an old school style list serv that reaches hundreds of butterfly buffs.

Late this afternoon a monarch flew from the SSW out across the open pasture and finally picked a mesquite just north of the cabin to land in and spend the night.  It wasn’t new but not close enough to tell sex.  We will all be out for a few more days to see if any others follow and if we can get any to pose for a photo.  This would put this one about 640 miles north of the sanctuaries … 65 miles ESE of San Antonio. A light north breeze today and in mid-70’s. –Harlen

Last year, my FOS arrived on March 17.   That was a different year, with ample, well-timed rains and an abundance of milkweed waiting.  This year our spring follows a brutally dry winter and extremely cold temperatures–including three hard freezes–that have resulted in a delayed start to spring.

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Front yard milkweed 2013:  Look how big the milkweed was in my yard on March 17 compared to the same plant, a year later, below.  This butterfly laid 12 eggs here that day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my yard is barely out of the ground, and the Swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata, on the Llano River is not even showing.   Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula?  Haven’t see any at our place, but others report a bounty.

As noted in a previous post, cold winters are actually good for the migration, since not only do colder temps kill fireants and other predators, but they slow down the butterflies and prevent them from getting ahead of the plants.  Check out the difference between last year (above) and this year’s milkweed foliage (below).

Tropical milkweed, spring 2014

Front yard Tropical milkweed March 21, 2014: barely out of the ground. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One common thread carried over from 2013:  again, this year looks to be the worst in history, population wise for Monarchs.  Last year we bemoaned the paltry 2.93 acres of Oyamel forest occupied by the Monarchs in Mexico.  But 2014 knocked out that dreary record, with only 1.65 acres–about 72,000 square feet–of  forest occupied by Monarch butterflies.  Scientists measure the number of acres occupied by the butterflies each year at their ancestral roosts to estimate how many butterflies exist.

That said, we must marvel at the tenacity and endurance of these small, slight creatures.  Those spotted this week have just traveled 850 miles in search of milkweed so they can lay eggs and continue the life cycle. They just don’t give up.

And we won’t either.

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Scientific Research in Progress at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren showed up right around 10 AM on Saturday for their shifts as volunteers of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) citizen science program.

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

With temperatures in the 50s, not much was flying at the Milkweed Patch at the San Antonio River Museum Reach just south of the Pearl Brewery.  But that didn’t deter these novice lepidopterists from perusing dozens of milkweed plants, and noting the profuse life teeming in the understory.

What, exactly, do volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project do?

Simply, they monitor milkweed plants for all stages of the Monarch butterfly lifecycle–eggs, caterpillars in five stages, the lovely jade-green gold-flecked chrysalises, and the butterflies.  The goal:  to better understand how and why Monarch populations change over time and space and to conserve Monarchs and their threatened migration.

One aspect of the project requires inspecting adult butterflies for the unpronounceable Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, protozoan.   Mary Kennedy, a former science teacher who has been involved with MLMP since 1999, demonstrates.

Kennedy carefully lifts a recently hatched Monarch, rubs a sterile Q-tip on its belly and tucks the sample into a zip-lock bag to be sent to a laboratory at the University of Minnesota.  She then takes a special piece of round tape, holds it against the creature’s abdomen, and lifts scales and spores onto the adhesive.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

The tape is secured onto a sheet of paper and later will be viewed under a microscope for OE spores, which can be deadly to Monarch butterflies. The butterfly is then marked gently with a black marker as well as a cut-in-half Monarch Watch tag (used in the fall to help track their migration) so that it’s not inadvertently monitored again.  Check out the slideshow above to see how it works.

Interested in helping out at the Milkweed Patch?  Volunteers meet on Saturdays at various times, depending on the weather.  Contact Mary Kennedy at mbkenned@sbcglobal.net for more information.

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San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch Becomes Official Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project Site

Monarch butterflies, who usually pass through town like so many other fleeting visitors, have taken up permanent residence at a 1200 square-foot milkweed garden known by local butterfly aficionados as “the Milkweed Patch” on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  The year-round colony is a first for San Antonio.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

We’ve written about the Milkweed Patch here many times, but just this month the Patch gained national attention from Monarch researchers when it became one of hundreds of  sites in the nation to be observed weekly by volunteer citizen scientists associated with the University of Minnesota-based Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP).

Monarch butterflies traditionally pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” each spring and fall to and from their ancestral roosting grounds in the the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.   Year-round local Monarch butterfly communities are relatively common along the Gulf Coast, in Houston and in Florida, yet they’ve been unheard of in San Antonio–until now.

“Its historic,” says Mary Kennedy of Boerne, who monitors Monarch caterpillars, at Boerne’s Cibolo Nature Center and at Mitchell Lake. “We’ve never had anything

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

like this before,” says the retired science teacher.  Kennedy used Monarch butterflies in her classroom for years at Texas Military Institute.  “This is not a place they would normally be this time of year.”

Kennedy suggests warmer winters and advantageous conditions at the protected, well-kept milkweed garden get credit for attracting the creatures that have captivated observers for millennia.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, calls the San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch “unique” and explains why scientists are especially interested in what goes on here.

“All Monarchs pass through Texas in the fall and again in the spring, and their use of resources in this state in many ways determines the success of the migration. Additionally, many Monarchs stay to breed in Texas in the fall, and understanding what drives this behavior will help us understand how monarchs might respond to climate change and how they are reacting to the presence of non-native milkweed.  The site is particularly interesting because it is basically an island of habitat, and understanding what happens there will help us understand how monarchs use habitat patches of different sizes and with different amounts of isolation from other sites.”

Dr. Oberhauser also points out that the visibility of the Milkweed Patch in our highly trafficked River Walk will engage many more people in “the wonders of monarch biology.”

The first weeks of monitoring have yielded more than 30 chrysalises–17 alive and 15 dead–and some surprising results, says Kennedy.  All butterflies were tested for Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a nasty protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.  Some Monarch scientists have speculated that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of OE, which seems to flourish on the plant in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Kennedy was pleasantly surprised that not a single one of the Milkweed Patch Monarchs collected this month showed signs of the crippling, often fatal disease.

San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

"A" marks the approximate spot for the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

And San Antonians will be pleasantly surprised by a saunter to the Milkweed Patch.  As the Spring Equinox approaches March 20, Monarchs will start to stream through San Antonio from Mexico, making their journey north and laying the first generation of eggs that will hatch, morph into their various stages, eclose and continue the multi-generation migration.  Go take a look.

Directions:  Park at the Pearl Brewery and cross to the west side of the River.  Follow the trail about five minutes and watch for butterflies.  You can also park on the deadened street at Elmira and Myrtle Streets, and descend the stairs to the River.  Walk south about one minute and you’ll be there.   

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It’s official: Warmer Winters Cause USDA to Revise Plant Hardiness Zones, San Antonio’s Moves Closer to the Coast

The USDA announced changes in plant hardiness zones this week, moving San Antonio into the same planting zone as Houston and Corpus Christi while Austin, Dallas and Houston zones remain unchanged.   The backsides of seed packets will never be the same.

The new map reflects 30 years of temperature data, from 1976 – 2006, and includes 26 specific zones, each with a five-degree temperature differential.

For example, San Antonio moved from zone 8b, with annual lows of 15 – 20 degrees, to zone 9a, with annual lows of 20-25 degrees.  Of 34 cities listed on the key of the map, 18 have new zoning designations.

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

Here’s the new zones for the four largest Texas cities:

  • Dallas–Zone 8a, 10-15 degrees
  • Houston–Zone 9a, 20 – 25 degrees
  • San Antonio–9a, 20 – 25 degrees (from 8b)
  • Austin–8b, 15-20 degreees

The new maps employ useful new interactive GPS, whereby you can plug in your zip code and find out your zone.  The data also reflects microclimate effects like nearby water sources and elevation.

The redefined heartiness zones tell us what butterflies and blooms have been communicating for the past few years.  As Monarchs and other butterflies reproduce on the San Antonio River well into the winter, it’s apparent that it’s just not as cold as it used to be.

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“Plant Lady” Lee Marlowe, Guardian of San Antonio River Riparian Restoration, Names Top 10 Troublesome Plants

Working as Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) is “a dream assignment” for Lee Marlowe, the biologist who serves as plant guardian of the landmark San Antonio River restoration project.  The MacArthur High School graduate was living and working in Minneapolis when she noticed the job listing during a visit home for Christmas in 2007.

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

By February of 2008, she had relocated back to San Antonio to immerse herself in the initiative touted by local leadership as the most important public works project of our time.

Known around SARA as “the plant lady,” Marlowe works with a team of nine to restore and maintain the 13 miles of river frontage that stretch from the formal plantings of the Museum Reach north of downtown to the native wildscapes of the Mission Reach that forge south.  Marlowe is passionate and approachable about the complex project, which entails planning, engineering, construction, landscaping and luck–with weather as the biggest wildcard.

“People relate to her,” said Suzanne Scott, General Manager of SARA. “She is able to communicate in such a way that the complex nuances of the project can be understood in layman’s terms.”

Marlowe refereed a recent online kerfuffle on the nature of the milkweed planted at the Monarch butterfly Milkweed Patch just south of the Pearl Brewery on the Museum Reach recently.  Was the Monarch butterfly magnet a native plant or not?

Tropical milkweed on San ANtonio River Walk

Yes, that's Tropical milkweed on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

She confirmed that the species is, indeed, the NONnative Asclepias curassavica, also known as Tropical milkweed.

“I would rather not have it there,” she said matter-of-factly. “That area was to be a formal garden and had to look good year-round,” she said.

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River: 3,000 native trees planted recently

That won’t be the case  south of downtown on the Mission Reach.  Marlowe and her team have relocated 3.5 million cubic yards of soil (the equivalent amount of concrete could  build another Hoover Dam) to accommodate 23,000 native trees scheduled for installation by 2014.  So far, 3,000 saplings and more than 10,000 pounds of wildflower seed have been planted.

Marlowe noted that while dozens of wildflower species were planted on the Mission Reach, many more ”volunteers”–gardening talk for plants that grow of their own volition, unplanned and unannounced–have sprouted.  Perhaps three times as many.  She cited the common sunflower Helianthus annuus as the most active volunteer.

Helianthus_annuus

The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, was an active "volunteer" on the Mission Reach

“It did so well we had to thin it out in some locations where it was compromising other plantings,” she said.  Marlowe attributed the wildflower windfall to active land management (read: pulling weeds) even moreso than the restoration of native conditions.

Interestingly, the same problem plants that plague home gardeners also invade the meticulously planned and managed Mission Reach.   Marlowe won’t single out a “most” troublesome plant, as it depends on the season and the day.  But Bermuda grass ranks near the top.

“It’s so well adapted it’s almost impossible to control,” she said.

Here’s Marlowe’s Top Ten Most Troublesome Plants (in no particular order)

  1. Leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala)
  2. Castorbean (Ricinus communis)
  3. Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  4. Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
  5. Giant cane (Arundo donax)
  6. King Ranch “KR” Bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum)
  7. Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)
  8. Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)
  9. Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense)
  10. Malta starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis/melitensis

While the SARA restoration project has won numerous local awards, Steven Schauer, SARA’s External Communications Manager, said later this spring SARA will nominate the Mission Reach for the Riverprize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award. A win would shine international attention on the Mission Reach.  The prize, awarded by Australia-based International River Foundation, gives recognition, reward and support to those who have developed and implemented outstanding, visionary and sustainable programs in river management.

In 2011, the Riverprize and its $330,000 purse went to the Charles River in Boston.  We’re betting in 2012 San Antonio’s Mission Reach has a credible shot and we’re keeping fingers crossed.  The award is announced in October.

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Butterfly FAQ: Pros and Cons of Tropical Milkweed and What to do with a Winter Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar or Chrysalis

Several emails like the one below landed in my mailbox this week seeking counsel on what to do about late season Monarchs.

Hi Monika,

My friends found seven Monarch caterpillars on a well- protected piece of milkweed.  Six are gone, but one spun a chrysalis that they are protecting.  Do you have any advice?  We are wondering how long it will be in the chrysalis state in the winter.  Thanks for any advice you can give.

Dale

I would bring it inside, Dale–but that’s just me.

Usually it takes 10 – 14 days to eclose, or become a butterfly, but cooler temps can extend the process.  Caterpillars I

Monarch caterpillar makes its "J" shape and readies to form its chrysalis, 12/21/2011

Monarch caterpillar makes its "J" shape and readies to form its chrysalis, 12/21/2011 in my kitchen.

found on potted milkweed in mid December and brought inside hatched just last week and flew off on a warm 70-degree afternoon. But it could easily have gone the other way, with an ice storm hitting just as my butterflies hatched.  Then what?

Deciding whether or not to adopt in-process butterflies during the off-season always presents a quandary. Questions to ask:

  1. Do you have nectar available? Newborn butterflies generally don’t need to eat for the first 24 hours, but then they’ll need sustenance.
  2. What about host plants?  A butterfly’s first priority is to mate (for males) and lay eggs (for females) on their specific host plant.
  3. Will the weather cooperate?  Butterflies don’t fly when it’s less than 65 degrees.  Most will die with a freeze.

With our crazy Texas weather, Monarchs and other butterflies can hatch throughout the year depending on temperatures and host plant availability.  As noted last week, Monarchs are reproducing regularly on the San Antonio River — even into January.   Whether or not the eggs of those late season couplings make it to the butterfly stage is a crap shoot dictated by Mother Nature.

Monarch chrysalis about to hatch in my kitchen

Monarch butterfly about to hatch in my kitchen

Generally, if I have host plants, I take found caterpillars into my kitchen to increase their chances of becoming a butterfly.  Studies suggest that  caterpillars and eggs left entirely to nature have a 10% chance of becoming a butterfly.  When we lend a hand the odds are flipped–with a 90% chance.

What’s sad is when butterflies hatch and enter a world with no potential mates, no nectar and no host plants.   I once bought several chrysalises at Butterfly World, the Disneyland”

Tropical milkweed on San ANtonio River Walk

Tropical milkweed on the San Antonio River Walk 1/04/2012

of butterflies and a worthy destination for butterfly fans in Coconut Grove, Florida.  I returned to Texas in mid December with Luna and Polyphemus Moth cocoons, and a Giant Swallowtail chrysalis.

I pinned each to the curtain of my kitchen window as directed, providing the bright light that can speed up development.

The Luna Moth hatched beautifully and was released on a relatively warm January evening.  The Polyphemus Moth never hatched.   When the Giant Swallowtail eventually eclosed–about six weeks after purchase–an ice storm raged outside.  A week of cold and freeze followed.  The poor creature flailed around on my kitchen floor, refusing the cut flowers and diluted Gatorade I offered via Q-Tip. After three sad days, the Swallowtail perished.

For Monarchs, this may not be a problem if you have milkweed growing year round. The non-native but easily adapted Asclepias curassavica, sold in many nurseries as Tropical milkweed, provides nectar and host plant material and grows gregariously in pots that can be moved in and outside.

That said, some Monarch scientists, including our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower, worry that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE, a protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders. OE is present in the landscape but seems to especially flourish on Tropical milkweed in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Scientists speculate that local OE-infested Monarchs will breed with migrating populations, possibly jeopardizing the migration.  Butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in our populations and getting out of hand only under stressed circumstances.  Some believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

The answer, Dale, is that it’s a cold, cruel world for butterflies caught in flighty Texas winters–and an uneasy call for butterfly fans seeking to lend them a hand.

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